Monday, September 19, 2016

Naxos Collects its Finzi Recordings into a Single “Anthology” Box Set

Naxos held its first recording sessions for a full album of the music of Gerald Finzi in September of 1995. Between than and April of 2008, a series of eight all-Finzi albums were released. At the beginning of this month, those eight recordings were released in a single package as a box set.

Born in 1901, Finzi is clearly a representative of English twentieth-century music. The page for the box set describes his music as “lyrical pastoralism.” This is a phrase one is likely to encounter in descriptions of Finzi’s senior by about a quarter of a century, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Go back about another quarter-century; and one arrives at the birth year (1857) of Edward Elgar. Both Elgar and Vaughan Williams ventured significantly beyond the pastoral, however. Yet, while Finzi composed actively through 1955 (the year before his death), he showed little sign of venturing very far beyond his comfort zone. On the other hand, by most standards he was not very prolific, leaving behind an opus count of only 40.

The Naxos anthology is not a “complete works” set. There is probably enough remaining material to fit on another CD, but it might not fill it. Rather, the resources were made on the basis of resources and genre. These may be enumerated as follows, with the original catalog numbers included for reference:
  1. 8.553566: the Opus 31 clarinet concerto (Robert Plane soloist), Lawrence Ashmore’s arrangement of the Opus 23 bagatelles, original written for clarinet and piano and performed, instead, with string ensemble, and other works for string ensemble (the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Howard Griffiths)
  2. 8.555766: the Opus 40 cello concerto (Tim Hugh soloist) and two works for piano (Peter Donohoe) and strings (again Griffiths leading the Northern Sinfonia)
  3. 8.555792: part-songs sung by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, led by Christopher Robinson, some with organ accompaniment by Christopher Whitton
  4. 8.557644: three song cycles sung by baritone Roderick Williams accompanied by pianist Iain Burnside
  5. 8.557863: two cantatas for tenor (James Gilchrist), chorus and orchestra (the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by David Hill)
  6. 8.557963: three more song cycles for baritone (Williams again), two accompanied by piano (Burnside) and one by string quartet (the Sacconi Quartet)
  7. 8.570414: three song cycles for tenor (John Mark Ainsley, accompanied by Burnside)
  8. 8.570417: orchestral music performed by Hill conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (and Gilchrist for the Opus 12 sonnet settings)
My own “first contact” came with Earth and Air and Rain, a two-CD Hyperion recording of five song cycles all based on poems by Thomas Hardy with pianist Clifford Benson accompanying tenor Martyn Hill and baritone Stephen Varcoe. (At the time I did not even know that Hardy was a poet as well as a novelist.) I took personal pleasure in encountering new interpretations of all five of these compositions in the Naxos anthology, and I suspect that my personal love of English literature led to a preferential bias on my part for the art song selections in general. His orchestra work frequently comes to the brink of syrupy, although there is sure to be argument over the side of the border on which it lands. However, the more intimate settings reminded me of my disappointment and not having heard any of this music in performance. Perhaps the current crop of male vocalists find Finzi’s music too old-fashioned; but then they probably feel the same way about the poets whose verses he chose to set. More’s the pity.

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